George F. Smith
The Fuzzies and the Hairies seized the spotlight that year. The rest of us existed to let those two pile up wins and play for the championship.
School officials who ran the Saturday morning basketball league frowned at those names, especially Mr. Bereman, the gym teacher/football coach built like a wire who loved his job because it gave him an opportunity to practice sadism legally. He was never without his clipboard, glasses, or suspicious look.
Hairies? Fuzzies? Those names are strongly suggestive. Frown.
A grown-up's frown in 1958 usually foreshadowed something worse, so we were braced for Bereman to go airborne. Surprisingly, he let the names stand, in the usual adult way of granting permission without approval, not knowing such a minuscule concession could be cited in later years as an incubator of our moral decay.
The Saturday morning league was a consolation for those of us who tried to make the school team. Amherst had for years towered over the competition in Western New York high school hoops. If you were inclined to wager, you bet on the margin of victory, not on whether they would win. Only a few were chosen to carry on the school's dominance each year, leaving a lot of us available for less glorious activities.
"Spider" Mike Bray captained the Hairies, "Banger" Steve Altman piloted the Fuzzies. They built their squads with the best and most popular discards from the school team tryouts. Spider was a lean speedster and master of the no-look pass; Banger was a burly loudmouth with a quick temper who lived to win.
On sign-up day in the gym three other teams emerged, but a few of us were still homeless. Bereman hollered out that anyone not on a team should go over to the east corner basket and wait there. As we arrived one by one we met like strangers on an elevator, standing around and averting each other's eyes.
From this debris of double-discards our team was born.
For our captain we elected a stoop-shouldered kid named Bob whose favorite TV show was Maverick and whose scout-leader father had taught him that planning and preparation could occasionally offset serious shortcomings.
Maverick had ways of dealing with shortcomings, too.
"So, what are you guys called? The Creepies?" Bereman asked when he came over to take our names down.
"Nope. Niagara," Bob said with a broad grin, enjoying his role as bearer of the unexpected.
A week later we had our only preseason game—against the Fuzzies.
“You guys better not miss any shots,” Banger warned as we took the court. He was smiling. The Fuzzies had recently held their own in a scrimmage against the school team, and four of his five starters measured taller than any of us. Banger, the football team's fullback, was built wide but not particularly high. Naturally, we figured to get killed.
It turned out the Fuzzies were so confident of winning when it counted they could afford to drop a nothing game to a bunch of nonentities like us. At least that’s what they assured us afterward in the locker room.
We were inclined to believe them, but winning left grounds for doubt. Had Paul, our guard, simply had a hot shooting day? We guessed probably so. Banger or Spider would've recruited him if he'd been any good. Then we had this guy, Ed. Ed liked baseline jumpers and made them more often than not. No one knew Ed very well either, so we figured he’d just been lucky, too.
But Bob and I, we wondered.
We started the regular season by proving the Fuzzies right. True to their promise, they beat us—in a close game.
In the late Fifties, the “team player” phrase so rampant now hadn't been coined yet, but that didn’t stop us from thinking that way. A team, we agreed, had players with roles, and the role of the shooters was to take good shots. The other players would get the ball to them. Paul and Ed, we decreed, would be our shooters. If we wanted to win, that's the way it had to be.
We tested our strategy on the other three doormats during the following weeks. It worked, but then we figured almost anything would work on them. With our game against the Hairies only a few days off—which would close out the first half of the season—we were about to find out if we were the best of the bad or actual contenders.
Since the Fuzzies had edged the Hairies the previous week, we had a hunch we could play them tough. When we heard that one of the Hairies' best players would miss the game because of the flu, we thought: this is our chance.
But we blew it. They beat us by a point.
Midway through the season the Fuzzies were on top undefeated with the Hairies right behind them at 4-1 and us – Niagara – hanging around at 3-2. We would play the same teams again in the second half of the season.
At this point we began to sense possibilities.
When the regular season ended the top two teams would play for the championship—on a Saturday night. Tickets would be sold, parents and friends would come to watch. A guy on the gymnasium's public address system would announce significant events of the game, as if we were real players. The team that won would receive a championship medal the size of a quarter.
We wanted to be there. We wanted to win it all. And to do that we couldn’t afford to lose another game.
Two days before our rematch with the Fuzzies captain Bob came down with the flu.
Things were even worse for the Fuzzies. They were stricken by the flu and something called lax. Some of their players didn’t think they needed to show up. Weekends, after all, were for sleeping in. They were good, no need to prove it to anybody, why should they crawl out of bed for a stupid game against us?
Saturday morning arrived like a bad hangover for the Fuzzies. With Banger on the phone berating one of his no-shows, the referee declared the game a forfeit and awarded the win to us. Banger slammed the phone down and ran screaming onto the court: “We’ll beat you with four players!” Then to the referee he snapped, “Come on, start the game!”
“It’s still a forfeit,” the ref reminded him.
“Who cares? Let’s go!”
And he proceeded to give us a clinic in what it took to kick butt. They played like hockey players in a grudge match, out-hitting and outscoring us. He gloated and laughed at us in the locker room after. “That’s the only way you guys will ever beat us,” he shouted, “and it’ll never happen again! You stink! We beat you with only four players!”
I stopped by Bob's on my way home and ran up to his attic bedroom to give him the news. I found him sitting cross-legged in bed, an old T-shirt hanging from rounded shoulders, hair omnidirectional and complexion near-death. When I told him we won he didn't believe me. "Would I risk contamination to tell you a lie?" I said. That convinced him. He threw a fist over his head and let fly with an imprecation, which sent him into a coughing fit.
"By forfeit," I added, when the barking subsided.
“Oh,” he said, then smiled and shouted: “It still counts!” The excitement got him hacking so hard his talking was reduced to interjections of profanity. On the plywood floor a stack of 45's was playing, and Little Richard was belting out, "A-wop-bop-a-lu-bop!" through tinny speakers.
Luck, the lady whom Maverick-Bob loved the best, had returned his affection with the forfeit win. Knowing her fickle ways we rededicated our efforts to keep our winning streak alive. Bob recovered, Paul and Ed were hitting their shots, and we were all playing our self-imposed roles.
It was clear even to our 15-year-old brains that Paul had been passed over by the elite teams because they didn’t like him. He had boyish looks and sometimes tried to impress the in-crowd by smoking a cigarette or telling a dirty joke. He didn’t think we were worth impressing that way. Ed was the quiet type whose friends didn’t play sports, so the other teams, not knowing he was good, simply passed him by.
We extended our streak by winning our second-last game of the season—putting us at 7-2— then took time to watch a match-up between the Hairies and Fuzzies. With one loss each, both teams were tied for first. The mood was serious, the game close all the way, but the Hairies prevailed. Spider had his guys playing tight defense and making careful shot selections.
As the players headed for the locker room it struck me: I had seen the Fuzzies lose, not by forfeit, but by being outplayed. No one had done that before. And the team that beat them was our next opponent, in a game we had to win.
I recalled with a shudder that they had beaten us earlier, missing one of their stars.
“The Hairies won with intensity today," Bob said later in his room. "We need to do something about that.”
“We could ask them not to try so hard."
He shot me a dirty look, then his face lit up. "Listen—what if we wore crazy uniforms? What if we wore knee socks, and sailor hats turned down over our ears, and . . . and loud jerseys? And painted our faces?"
“They'd laugh at us,” I said, admiring his genius.
We picked up the components of our new look piece by piece during the coming week. If it was going to work, it had to be a surprise – a sudden surprise – so we didn't talk about it with anyone, not even our teammates. On the eve of the game, we held an emergency team meeting and gave our guys their new identities. They all thought it would be fun, but most didn’t think it would help.
In the locker room on Saturday morning, the Hairies dressed and went out to warm up while we lollygagged around. Then we donned our costumes, part-way. A couple of guys smeared their faces with red muck, then started goofing off.
“Hey!” Bob yelled. They froze. “We're here to win. And wipe that stuff off. We can put it on during the pre-game huddle."
We warmed up without our hats, with our shirts off and our socks rolled down. When game time approached we swung into full gear. And held our breath.
“What's this?!” Bereman bellowed, as we took the court for tip-off.
Would he stop us, make us change into normal playing clothes—
Declare a forfeit?!
"Just a little fun," Bob said, card shark to dupe.
Bereman waved his clipboard in dismissal. “You've come this far, get on with it.” He folded himself onto a bench along the edge of the court, fighting back a smile.
We played possessed while the Hairies watched; we won in a blowout. The Fuzzies, who had just trounced their opponent, dropped by to laugh.
“Now we’ve got a three-way tie,” Banger said as we cleared the court. “Someone loan Bereman a dime.”
A coin toss would give one team a bye to the championship game to meet the winner of a playoff between the other two.
People cry that the universe as a whole is devoid of justice, but after Spider alone called the outcome correctly on the first toss, we saw evidence to the contrary. Spider's team, the Hairies, got the bye. The Fuzzies would play them for the championship. All they had to do was beat us in the coin-toss game first.
The Fuzzies were delirious. Revenge was at hand. There would be no forfeit this time; the better team would win, and no team was better than the Fuzzies.
We were glum. Our confidence had been delusional; we had no real talent. We were in a playoff game by the grace of a forfeit and some trickery. We had run out of ways to win.
We held a cheerless team meeting. Every attempt at self-assurance seemed feeble in the face of the overbearing Fuzzies.
“What would Maverick do?” I asked captain Bob.
He stared into space and began whistling off-tune. "Cash in his chips," he said, trying for a joke.
We couldn’t turn to fans for support because we didn't have any. We were too old for our parents to care, and too unexciting for anyone else to give a hoot.
Minutes before the playoff game was to begin, we still hadn’t found a way to beat them.
“The trouble’s with our name,” said Stewart, our tallest player, after missing a mind-numbing succession of warm-up shots. “‘Niagara’? That’s stupid. We need something cool.” Cool, a good Fifties word.
The ref was blowing his whistle, signaling tip-off was imminent.
“Let’s do what got us here!” Bob commanded as we all hunched over in a circle. Then as he tried to refresh us about what we had done to bring ourselves there, nerves overtook him. Nothing much sensible came out of his mouth, other than we needed to be aggressive. We took the court to confront the grim-faced Fuzzies armed with confusion.
We did a good job of keeping the ball away from our best shooters in the first half, while allowing the Fuzzies plenty of open shots and offensive rebounds. Captain Bob drove the lane for layups, showing no respect for their defense and coming away empty almost every time. Following his lead, other guys tried the one-on-five approach. When the half ended the Fuzzies were so far ahead we wanted to hide.
“We're panicking!” I yelled at Bob across the locker room during halftime.
“Everything they’ve got’s in their mouth,” came Paul's calm voice. “They’re laughing right now because they think the game’s over.”
“Paul’s scored one basket,” I said.
Bob thumped Paul’s shoulder as if trying to pick a fight. “Listen, you’re bringing the ball down court from now on. Keep it until you get a clear shot or see an open man. Ed, stay with him, then drift to the baseline and wait for a pass. The rest of us need to draw the defense away from them and be ready.”
“Speaking of defense,” I said.
"Damn it, smother them!" he screamed.
The second half was a repeat of the first, only we switched sides: they did the choking, we did the scoring. And Paul did the playmaking. He moved over the floor like a dancer, supreme in his element, confident of every move. If more than one defender started to crowd him, he'd whip the ball to one of us for an open shot. If the defense backed off, he'd find his spot and put up the jumper. He finished as the top scorer and number one in assists.
And he was the MVP in the championship game, as well.
By then, a few of the Fuzzies had recovered from their playoff loss to come watch us play the Hairies. Banger wasn’t among them. To my delight, my father came. I suspect the Hairies still couldn't take us seriously, and after the confidence-building win over the Fuzzies, we had them in our hands. Quiet Paul led us in slaying another giant.
As we headed for the showers after the game, one of the Fuzzies came down from the stands for a look at my championship medal. Though he had to squint to see it, I wish today it was still among my possessions.
I hadn't seen Banger since after the coin-toss game, when he stood straight-shouldered under a shower cursing us. He couldn't stand our shrieking and howling. A season he would soon forget would be a lesson we would always remember. Like the river of the same name, Niagara dropped its great surprise near the end. His guys had bigger egos than us, player-for-player they had more talent. No doubt if they staged Hamlet they'd all try to play the lead.
We didn't, and that's what pulled us through.